Tony Norman: W.Va. water crisis serves as lesson elsewhere

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Sometime soon, another politician with national ambitions and contempt for the electorate's intelligence will call for the abolition of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While desperately trying to prove his or her bona fides to an aggravated minority of voters who consider even benign regulation a manifestation of government tyranny, that politician will lose West Virginia -- and rightfully so.

Starting Thursday, 300,000 West Virginians had to drink, bathe, do their laundry and clean their dishes with bottled water or water trucked in to distribution centers. Restrictions were lifted for some Monday, but for others their tap water remained fit only for flushing the toilet.

Those living in a nine-county area of the Kanawha Valley endured a nightmare scenario due to a chemical spill into the Elk River from a storage facility in Charleston, the state capital.

An estimated 7,500 gallons of a coal-processing chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane (Crude MCHM) leaked from a rupture in a 35,000-gallon containment tank. That wouldn't have been a problem if the retaining wall around the containment tank had held, but it was awaiting a $1 million upgrade to bring it into compliance with environmental laws.

Sometimes a cliche like "the perfect storm" more than earns its keep. The failure of Freedom Industries, the plant's owner, to make a functioning retaining wall a priority; the containment tank's proximity to the river; and the lack of inspection of the site since 1991 means that hundreds of thousands of people will only get angrier as their hassles continue.

Some with too much contrarian political spirit and too little common sense will argue that the EPA bears as much responsibility for the disruption to everyone's routine as the company that owns the plant, because the federal government imposed a coal-cleaning regime on Big Coal in the first place.

If the EPA didn't exist, they'll argue, a containment tank full of Crude MCHM wouldn't have been sitting in Charleston. Their answer to disasters like the one in West Virginia is less regulatory scrutiny, not more.

It's a safe bet that the folks arguing against more federal and local environmental oversight aren't forced to take showers many miles from where they live today. They haven't been hauling jugs of water home just to keep their loved ones and pets hydrated. They're not in a position to complain about the licorice smell from the spill permeating their neighborhood.

The fact that people wouldn't immediately drop dead from drinking the water is no reason to minimize the magnitude of the calamity. There may be some legitimate dispute about how much a person has to drink to get sick, but there's no doubt that it is unhealthy to do so, considering the hospitalizations that took place.

What's mind-boggling is that what happened in West Virginia is a relatively modest peek into the daily routine of millions of people around the world who live near contaminated water and don't have the option of bottled water or a hot shower nearby. They can't depend on the equivalent of the EPA looking out for their interests or a rapid federal response to help alleviate their misery and thirst.

Fortunately, our Appalachian neighbors are handling the crisis by being patient with each other and pulling together during a difficult time. The accident suddenly reminded them -- and us -- of the preciousness of our water supply. Taking uncontaminated water for granted when there's a virtual gold rush for natural gas, which has disrupted the coal industry in recent years, is foolish.

Here in Pennsylvania, energy companies and the Corbett administration are apoplectic over a recent state Supreme Court decision that struck down a 2012 law that had defanged local zoning statewide and had backed an energy company's right to drill gas wells anywhere it wished.

These companies are much happier if they have the option of ignoring the locally imposed "crazy quilt" of environmental laws that are always tougher than those hammered out in Harrisburg under the watchful eyes of their army of lobbyists.

Our fellow citizens on the front lines of protest against indiscriminate fracking in this state are fighting to maintain the integrity of our water supply. They aren't against energy industry profit and job creation as much as they're for clean, drinkable water.

Although the circumstances are vastly different, the chemical spill in West Virginia means a water-related disaster here is no longer unthinkable.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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